Real Salt Lake: RSL has to balance playoff push, Open Cup final
Facing Whitecaps, DC United in four-day span creates lineup questions.
Published: September 28, 2013 06:51PM
Updated: February 14, 2014 11:34PM
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Colorado Rapids midfielder Hendry Thomas, left, of Honduras, goes down as he tries to defend against Real Salt Lake midfielder Luis Gil, right, in the second half of an MLS soccer game in Commerce City, Colo., on Saturday, April 6, 2013. The Rapids won 1-0. (AP Photo/Chris Schneider)

Sandy • By Jason Kreis’ own calculations, Real Salt Lake still needs points to secure a spot in the Major League Soccer playoffs, and Saturday’s matchup with Vancouver provides one of the last few chances of the season to earn some.

One problem. Three days later, RSL hosts the U.S. Open Cup final and a victory there would vault the club into the CONCACAF Champions League, an international tournament that Kreis greatly admires.

So, as he considered his situation this week, the RSL boss was on the verge of acknowledging something coaches at any level rarely do: In some ways, it might be time to look ahead to the next game.

“It’s something I’m still going over in my head,” Kreis said. “Back and forth, and back and forth. I certainly will say this: Tuesday is the most important game, and I said that a month ago.”

With a short turnaround between matches, Kreis is conflicted. Should he rule out his top-choice lineup? Let Kyle Beckerman, Chris Wingert, Ned Grabavoy and others race up and down the turf at BC Place on Saturday and ask them to do it again three days later in Sandy?

Or does he make the other sacrifice and rest starters in advance of the final?

“We could also spin it the other way and say perhaps that allows us to play a very fresh and hungry team [in Vancouver],” Kreis said.

This is not to say the game against the Whitecaps is unimportant.

However slim RSL’s chances to win the Supporters’ Shield now are with just a month left in the regular season, Kreis said standing pat at 48 points won’t be good enough to make the MLS playoffs.

After cruising through much of the summer in first place, RSL has struggled in its last two games. The team looked flat two weeks ago against the first-place Sounders, only to let San Jose’s Steven Lenhart score two header goals in a three-minute span in a 2-1 loss a week later at Rio Tinto Stadium.

On paper, the matchup with Vancouver offers some of the same problems as last week’s tilt against the Earthquakes. The Whitecaps have had an up-and-down season; looking to claw their way back into the playoff picture, they have strung together some solid performances of late.

“The whole year long, they’ve had their highs and lows,” Kreis said. “When they’ve been high, they’ve been really good. They’ve been a little more inconsistent than they even were last year, but it’s a team you always have to be prepared for them being at their best.”

RSL defender Tony Beltran said Tuesday’s game will be “in the back of our minds” in Canada, but said that getting a better result out of that game is crucial for the team’s long-term success.

“Especially given the last two games, the last two negative results, we need to get better on Saturday,” he said. “We all know there’s no point in feeling sorry for ourselves. What good is that going to do? We need to come out here and work hard and get ready together, get better for Saturday … start peaking so we can get ready for [the Open Cup final], get ready for the playoffs so we can do something special.”

Regardless of the lineup he puts on the field Saturday, Kreis said the team’s last two losses should have provided a lesson for his players.

“I think there’s one thing to be said about losing,” Kreis told reporters. “It reminds you how nice it feels when you win, and it reminds you how hard you have to work to win.”

afalk@sltrib.com

RSL at Vancouver Whitecaps

O At BC Place (Vancouver)

Kickoff • Saturday, 5 p.m. TV • CW30, Univision

Records • RSL 14-10-6, 48 points; Vancouver 11-10-8, 41 points

About RSL • Back-to-back losses to Seattle and San Jose have Salt Lake sitting in second place in the Western Conference with four games to go. … RSL is 4-2-1 all-time in the regular season against the Whitecaps. … Team has not lost to Vancouver this year, drawing on the road and winning once at Rio Tinto Stadium.

About the Whitecaps • Finished off a three-game trip with a 3-0 stomping of Montreal. … With 41 points, the team currently sits outside of playoff position in sixth place. … Defender and captain Jay Demerit has played in back-to-back games after missing nearly all of the season with an injury.